With over 100 million copies in print, the Fifty Shades of Grey book series is an undeniable phenomenon, and it didn’t take long for Hollywood to come knocking at the door of author E.L. James. With a built-in audience and record-breaking advance ticket sales for an R-rated film, Fifty Shades of Grey is guaranteed to have a successful showing at the box office – but is the film worth all the excitement?
No. Not at all.
Filling in for her flu-stricken roommate, Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) drives to Seattle to interview handsome self-made billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) for her college newspaper. For reasons that are never made clear, Grey is instantly captivated by the frumpy, nervous student – he shows up unannounced to Ana’s workplace the following day, and then invites her to have coffee with him following a photo shoot.
But despite Ana’s willingness to be swept off her feet, Grey abruptly tells her that he is not the right match for her, and sends her packing. Which begs the question why, after he receives a late-night phone call from an intoxicated Ana, does he suddenly appear at the same bar – and more importantly, how did he find her? That’s a little bit creepy, right?
Ana wakes up in Grey’s hotel room, dismayed to discover that she had been undressed and put to bed the night before. Grey assures her that nothing happened, and promises not to lay a hand on her without her “written consent,” a promise he breaks minutes later when an elevator ride leads to a passionate make-out session. But as smitten as Ana may be with her new billionaire beau, this isn’t exactly a traditional romance.
Christian Grey doesn’t do romance, he doesn’t do heart and flowers, and when Ana asks him to take her to bed, he informs her “I don’t make love. I fuck. Hard.” While this exchange is no doubt meant to be provocative, it comes across so forced and phony that most of the audience burst into laughter – a theme that would continue throughout the rest of the film, as the actors struggled mightily to inject emotion into the clunky, painful dialogue.
Speaking of pain, the Fifty Shades of Grey novel has become somewhat infamous for its depictions of kinky sex and BDSM. The problem is that most real-life practitioners have denounced the book as being wildly inaccurate, with the events and circumstances described within its pages being more akin to rape and domestic abuse, rather than consensual acts.
The filmmakers have obviously taken note of those complaints, and the onscreen sex scenes – of which there aren’t many – cast Ana as a willing contributor, rather than a reluctant participant. She’s eager to learn, and open to try just about anything – except, of course, the “hard limits” defined in her contract with Grey (yes, there’s a contract). But viewers expecting the film to be as graphic and explicit as the source material will likely be disappointed, as the scandalous nature of Ana and Grey’s physical exploits has been dialed back considerably. The onscreen bumping and grinding is actually quite tame – there’s more chemistry in a high school science classroom than there is between the two leads, and there are better sex scenes on just about any HBO series than anything you’ll find during this film’s 125-minute running time.
The length is yet another entry on a long list of sins committed by Fifty Shades of Grey, because there’s scarcely enough material here to fill an hour, let alone two. Once the subject of the contract has been introduced, the remainder of the film is a repetition of scenes: Grey tries to get Ana to sign the contract, thus becoming the submissive to his dominant, and Ana tries to get Grey to commit to a more traditional relationship, where they can sleep in the same bed and she’s allowed to look at him and touch him without asking permission. Watching this same scenario play out again and again without any hint of plot advancement or character development quickly becomes exhausting.
Jamie Dornan is woefully miscast here in the role of the charming billionaire. The Irish-born actor spends most of the film grappling with an American accent, which causes the poorly written dialogue to sounds even more unnatural, and he lacks the confidence or charisma needed to make this sort of character compelling. Dornan never seems comfortable in the role – perhaps because he wasn’t comfortable with the subject matter, a point he’s mentioned during the film’s press tour – and his performance suffers because of it.
Dakota Johnson, on the other hand, is one of the few things that Fifty Shades of Grey gets right. She’s the only character that feels even remotely realistic or authentic, and she does the absolute best she can with the material she’s given – which certainly isn’t much. We believe that she’s truly attracted to Grey, we just never really understand why. In fact, there’s a lot of confusion on both sides of that equation – why would either of these people be so insistent on trying to be with someone they’re clearly not compatible with?
At one point, Ana berates Grey for being unwilling to accept her the way that she is, while simultaneously pressuring him to conform to her own standards. Grey, meanwhile, is well aware that Ana is reluctant to become his submissive, and spends the second half of the film trying to persuade her to accept his offer, while repeatedly telling her that she’s perfect the way she is. Each wants the other to change, and neither is willing to, so the whole thing just feels like an exercise in futility.
Come to think of it, that’s a perfect allegory for the film as a whole. Fifty Shades of Grey desperately wants us to believe that the characters onscreen are genuine (they’re not), that their chemistry is palpable (it isn’t), and that the sex scenes are scandalous and taboo (they’re not). And the audience wants Grey to be charming (he’s not), the romance to be believable (it isn’t), and the sex scenes to be… well, sexy (they’re not). The result is a film that’s far more tedious than titillating, and definitely more amusing than arousing. Skip it.